Friday, January 3, 2014
Hear Amid the Winter's Snow
They're calling it "Winter Storm Hercules."
From Chicago to Boston and beyond, sub-zero temperatures and the season's first major blizzard have visited the nation's most densely-populated region, right at the end of the Christmas and New Years holiday. For most schoolkids, who are already on a two-week Christmas break - if they're still allowed to use the word "Christmas" - there have been no classes to miss. Yet, anyway. However, for their parents, many of whom likely had to return to work yesterday, the commute is treacherous, and sidewalks and driveways suddenly much wider and longer than when temperatures are above freezing.
She had no intention of adding insult to injury, but on Facebook this morning, a longtime female acquaintance of mine posted a photo of herself all tanned and glamorous, having arrived in Palm Beach just a few days ago after spending Christmas with her family in Ohio, and before that, wrapping up a project in New York City. In photos she'd posted from suburban Cleveland, her skin was lily white, like the color of the snow that's been falling up there these past couple of days. But already, less than a week down in Florida, her skin is as bronzed as any native Floridian's. I'm sure all of her friends in Ohio and New York - and Connecticut, where she has a summer home - are admiring that tan with more than a tinge of "wish-I-were-there."
Northern winters are indeed kinder to kids than adults, aren't they? It's usually kids who get to stay home during snowy weather. It's kids who are allowed to go play in snowdrifts while their parents shovel snow from driveways. And it's kids who get to trudge back inside after getting snow all down in their socks and underwear and be greeted with a steaming bowl of homemade soup, or mug of hot chocolate and fresh-from-the-oven cookies.
Growing up in rural upstate New York, when we'd come back inside after romping around in the piles of snow blanketing our property, I don't clearly remember my Mom ever giving my brother and me fresh-from-the-oven cookies. But I do recall her soups, and settling down to the dinner table after taking off our mittens, scarves, and woolen hats - clumped with little balls of icy snow - and hanging them over the big wood stove in a corner of the kitchen. As those clumps of icy snow would melt, droplets of water would hit the iron cooking surface of that stove, and quietly spit and hiss.
Back in the laundry room, where we'd have removed our one-piece snowsuits and clunky winter boots, little puddles would be forming as more snow - buried in the creases and folds of our garments - thawed. The way my brother and I burrowed into snowbanks along our driveway, rolled in fluffy drifts around trees, and romped with our energetic collie in waist-high meadows of brilliant white snow, we could look like employees from a talcum powder factory when we came inside.
Dad had a snowblower, a clanky, noisy contraption that gobbled up fallen snow and blew it out of the way, and he'd clear our long driveway after a major snowstorm, leaving crisp white walls along edges that could get several feet high. We lived in the "snow belt" of New York State's Tug Hill Plateau, where lake-effect snow blowing in from Lake Erie could dump several feet of the white stuff in one blizzard. I remember one winter, when fallen snow got so high, it covered our kitchen window.
With all the practice he got, Dad was mighty proud of his snowplowing prowess, but since we hadn't expended the arduous effort like he had, my brother and I couldn't share his appreciation for a well-cleared driveway. Instead, to us, a freshly-carved wall of snow along our driveway represented the next opportune site for creating a new tunnel, or pretending like we were skydiving, or simply throwing ourselves into something so soft and fluffy that we couldn't possibly hurt ourselves.
Even if we did leave a mess.
It wasn't the loss of such precise creases alongside the driveway that bothered Dad, however. It was all of the snow my brother and I would, as we cavorted in these newly-carved snowbanks, cause to spill out and into the driveway. Hey - we weren't old enough to drive, so we didn't let practicalities haunt us back then. I don't think my brother or I ever learned our lesson: inevitably, Dad would bark at us to go and get the shovels, and scrape up the snow that was now obstructing the path for our cars.
Actually, I don't remember that we had a lot of snow days, when school was closed because of the snow. In fact, many times, blizzards would start while we were in school, and if we were fortunate, class might be dismissed early so all of the buses could get back to the depot at a reasonable hour. When I'd arrive home, I'd climb into my snow gear, and trundle off into the freshly-fallen snow - and indeed, the freshly falling snow - to enjoy the irresponsibility of what adults would consider to be bad weather.
When it's snowing, everything seems hushed, doesn't it? And muted. You can shout, but your voice - especially the voice of your parent - doesn't seem to carry as far. I suppose it's an acoustic fluffiness from all the soft flakes of frozen water. If there's no wind, and snow is falling so steadily it seems you're wandering around in white sheets, you can enter your own private world of contemplation and awareness, with the light grayness of both sound and sight.
Stop, and try to hear the snow falling. Flop on your back in snow so fresh, it hasn't begun to compact itself. Swirls of snowflakes coil up from where they'd fallen and settle on your face and nose like transient visitors... because they melt away in the warmth of your skin. We had huge, towering pine trees in front of our house, and I loved to crawl down into the snow cavities created by even the slightest breeze, and the broad, thick pine branches just a few feet above the ground, collecting most of the falling snow. Laying up in underneath, just out of sight, but still able to command a view of one's increasingly white surroundings, the solitude was palpable. And so freeing. When you're a kid playing in the snow by yourself, there is no hate, no misunderstanding, no offense, no quarreling. Just your imagination - an imagination too young to have been corrupted by what's wrong with our world.
Yes, they say youth is wasted on the young. And whenever I see photos and videos of blizzards these days, as a fortysomething adult, while I have no regrets about not living up there and having to shovel and snowblow and try to drive in that stuff, I do regret that I can't go back and simply traipse out around the eastern side of our two-story farmhouse, down the broad side yard... around to the silent sentinel of pines, in the shadows... as they obediently held out their velvety branches in the falling snow.
And laying down and listening.